The National Human Rights Commission of Korea, Human Asia and Korea University’s Graduate School of International Studies co-hosted an international conference in Seoul under the theme, “Cooperation Between Governments and Civil Society to Protect and Promote Refugee Rights” on August 21, 2012. At the conference, various experts on refugee issues from all over the world spoke, including panelists from South Korea, the United Kingdom, the U.S., the Philippines, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Nepal and New Zealand. The rights of North Korean defectors were one of the main focuses of their discussion.
The conference was divided into four main sections. The first of these was the opening ceremony, at which speeches and addresses were presented to kick off the event and welcome participants. One of these was a welcoming address by Byung-chul Hyun, chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea. Hyun said in the speech that “in the case of Korea, the ratio of refugee recognition is extremely low compared to other developed countries, and the recognition process lacks fairness and transparency, not to mention the social treatment of refugees, etc.” He also said, “Overall, Korea stands below average on the standards of refugee protection identified by the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and other international conventions on human rights.”
Following the ceremony’s final keynote speech and photo shoot, the conference’s first session was held on the theme of the UN convention relating to the status of refugees and the implementation of the refugee act in the domestic sphere.
This first session was moderated by Kyung-seo Park, South Korea’s first Ambassador-at-Large for Human Rights and the current president of the Korean Center for United Nation Human Rights Policy. It featured the following discussants: Brian Barbour, Director of External Relations at the Japan Association for Refugees; Martin Jones, Lecturer at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights; Jong-chul Kim, a lawyer with Advocates for Public Interest Law; Young-hoon Song, senior researcher at Seoul National University’s Institute for Peace and Unification Studies and Vladimir Hernandez, Director of the Philippine Programme at Community and Family Services International.
Kim, a well-known advocate of the rights of North Korean defectors, gave a presentation on South Korea’s enactment of a relatively new refugee law dealing with such defectors and extended suggestions on its unsolved issues. He said this new law “was passed at the South Korean National Assembly plenary session just two days before the New Year’s Day of 2012.” Kim also praised the law for enhanced legal formalities of procedure for recognition of refugee status, including making “information on the asylum application procedure as well as the application form… available at Incheon Airport.”
But he pointed out various flaws in the new legislation. For instance, Kim stressed that it “should be amended to make at least one of the two economic assistances (work permits or financial support for living expenses) as obligations.”
He also emphasized that until the law was enacted, “asylum seekers could not apply for asylum at the port of immigration.” Instead, according to Kim, they “had to apply for temporary landing permits first, legally enter Korea with the permit, and then apply for asylum.”
Now, the law “has made it possible to apply for asylum at both the airport and the port of immigration,” he said. However, Kim added that a “problem still lies with the clause (of the law) that authorizes that port of immigration to determine whether or not to ‘submit’ asylum applications to the refugee application screening unit before the actual processes for refugee status determination begin.”
Song also focused on North Korean refugees and discussed the new regulation. He argued that legislating this new law should “not be the final step for refugee protection.” According to Song, “in practice, refugees should be treated as active members of communities at the regional and national levels rather than passive subjects with the needs of external help […] The Korean community for refugee protection should pay more attention not only to the revision of the refugee law but also to develop programs for successful refugee resettlement,” he explained. Such programs, Song said, include providing temporary shelters, a language education program, a preventive health-care program, and vocational as well as civic education on behalf of North Koreans who have defected to South Korea.
The remaining two sessions of the conference, which were held in the afternoon, focused on cooperation between governments and civil society as well as on refugees’ social rights and integration. They included a talk on the main activities of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in protecting and promoting refugees’ rights in South Korea, as well as a presentation on how to support a stable stay in the South for refugees by upholding their social rights.
The event met with enthusiastic response from members of the audience, which packed the venue, and some of them spoke during the question and answer sessions of the conference, praising it as having contributed significantly toward promoting the advancement of refugee rights in Asia. As Park, who was the moderator of the first session, said during the conference’s first session, “The conference cannot address all refugee rights issues due to time limitations. But it appears to have succeeded in meeting its goal of dealing with the crucial ones.”